Forty years on from launching Jason and the Scorchers, the Illinois-born Southern-twanged cowpunk singer is as fired up as ever on Rhinestoned, his 21st release and seventh as a solo artist, partly comprising songs that didn’t make the Stand Tall album and partly new material written in response to the pandemic and the divisions and racial strife tearing America apart plus a clutch of covers given his own treatment. Recorded under lockdown conditions, nevertheless it still features multi-instrumentalist and producer George Bradfute, drummer Steve Ebe, daughters Addie and Camille and fiddle and pedal steel maestro Fats Kaplin.
The album title serves as a platform for songs exploring his relationship with the changing nature of Nashville and its role in country music, addressed first in ‘Nashville Without Rhinestones’, a walking beat, semi-spoken number written back in 2017 as he sings of gentrification and how “the town has been corrupted its soul is now for sale” and that, with the rise of condominiums, “Cadillacs and Telecasters all will be forgotten/Nobody will sing about hogs or pickin’ cotton””, the town now “ a sinking ship/Filled with hillbilly ghosts on their final trip”.
He further touches on his concerns in the twanging autobiographical ‘My Highway Songs’, pondering whether there’s still a place for his music (“Now movement is healthy and change is goo/And deep inside I know I’m doing what I should/Then how come I’m wondering where I belong”) and ‘Stoned On Rhinestones’ which looks back his conversion to classic country on hearing Hank Williams and taking to the honky tonks, though perhaps the line about giving up a three storey house with a pool to do so is perhaps slightly fanciful.
On a different note (vibrato guitar actually) and recalling vintage Scorchers albums, the album opens, Kristi Rose on harmony, with ‘Before Love and War’, a song about cheating and broken relationships (“Stranger’s coat in the hall/Smell of smoke and a promise broken”) that mentions Sint-Laureins in Flanders and draws on WWI imagery for its metaphor. Two numbers clock in at over five minutes, the first being the rousing ‘The Freedom Rides Weren’t Free’, a number presciently written prior to summer 2020’s the racial unrest that recalls the Freedom Riders, the young black and white Civil Rights non-violent activists of the 60s who defiantly rode interstate buses into the segregated South “from Anniston to Birmingham and down in Mississippi” to “take their stand for justice”, drawing a comparison to Nashville today “where superstars take selfies and wave at you and me”.
The second, at nearly seven minutes and the result of a dream, also addresses American history, stomping along on banjo, Les Paul, Stratocaster and Gretsch in cowpunk propulsion, ‘I Rode with Crazy Horse’ being loosely based on the legend that one of the iconic Lakota chief’s cousins was at his side throughout every battle, as well as his murder at Fort Robinson, the number being proudly sung in his voice.
Turning to the covers, again with Rose on harmonies, the first is a swayalong through the Carter Family’s ‘The Storms Are On The Ocean’ followed on a religious note with a full-blooded take on Charles Wesley’s traditional Easter hymn ‘Christ The Lord Is Risen Today’ which, featuring Addie on harmony and Camille on piano, learned from hearing them singing in the church choir. Then, heading into the final stretch comes a goodtime bounce through the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ tribute to rockabilly music, ‘Time Warp’, and then, nodding to his formative influence, a loping cowpunk reconstruction of Hank’s honky tonk diamond ‘You Win Again’.
Rhinestoned ends with, first, another cheating number, the rocking and rowdy ‘Keep That Promise’ (“I wish I had a dollar for every time you said/That you’d be true when you were running around instead”) where he sings about putting the harm back in harmonica, and, finally, the Byrdsian 12-string jangle of ‘Window Town’ which draws on the unrest in the world outside the drawn curtains “drowning out what I want to be true”.
There was a point a few years back when Ringenberg questioned whether he still had a career or a future making country music, echoed here as he asks “Is there a place in this world for my highway songs?” The answer is a resounding yes and always.
by Mike Davies